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Swarm robotics has big potential to revolutionize agriculture in China

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-04-16 10:16

A robot picks strawberries at a strawberry greenhouse in Jiande city, South China's Guangdong province, Jan 9, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

China has pledged to increase investment in its domestic agricultural industry, as the nation looks toward prioritizing vital long-term industries for national longevity post-pandemic.

Many areas of technology, from AI farming technology to the latest in pesticide control, are receiving unprecedented levels of funding. One exciting development is swarm robotics. The concept of using thousands of tiny robots to carry out micromanaged tasks on a macro scale has been of interest to military researchers around the world. However, their potential to manage large expanses of crops, for example watering or harvesting, could be a huge help to farmers working around the clock to feed China's 1.4 billion-strong population.

Throughout the last century, large machinery has dominated the landscapes of crop fields around the world. Giant mechanical dinosaurs weighing several tons spreading fertilizer, plowing fields or harvesting yields on a macro scale may soon, however, be a thing of the past, replaced by tiny semi-autonomous robotic works swarming in their hundreds, or even thousands. Swarm robotics could provide an unprecedented level of detail for China's farms of the future, spraying individual plants and analyzing every tiny detail of the expansive farming landscape.

Although the technology is still in its infancy, many early examples resemble small remote-control toys or drones, with the former more likely to be adopted as drone regulations in China and abroad become increasingly strict. Swarm intelligence relies upon remote communication, which enjoys low latency. This is where China could become a world leader. China already boasts one of the world's most extensive 5G infrastructures, meaning that farmers will be able to connect their fleet of outdoor robots with ease. Machine-to-machine communication, cloud platforms and all the calculations that require navigating situational awareness in dynamic agricultural settings will be well-suited to modern Chinese methodology.

With China fast becoming the global model for 5G integration, other countries could follow suit as the technology becomes widespread and enjoys economies of scale. The current eye-watering cost of swarm robotics may drop in the near future, making it an affordable option for farmers around the world.

The perks that this would offer farmers could revolutionize the industry, giving them control over impossibly minute details of their operating area. It may be possible, for example, to spray pesticides specifically on certain crops and avoid environmental damage to surrounding naturally-occurring plants and animals. Insights into improving yields may also reach the next level. Apple orchards, for example, could be individually inspected by a robot that takes a model of the tree and its personal growth history, and combines this knowledge to both calculate and achieve the maximum optimum number of apples produced on each tree.

Food security is vital for any country, and although decades of meteoric economic success mean famine has been relegated to the history books for the Chinese people, further economic booms taking place in the country mean new demographic demands and environmental challenges to be met lie ahead.

Swarm robotics holds much promise as a tool to meet these challenges. The soy bean or grain of rice you eat in 20 years time could have a far more attentive upbringing that you realize.

Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily

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